Stage Direction : Actors Use a Play to Educate Field Workers on Rights and Pesticides


As the sun was setting on Campo Tres S’s Labor Camp in Oxnard, the routine noise of field workers lining up for dinner, watching television and washing clothes was broken by the sound of laughter, music and applause.

The 200 mostly Mexican men who live in 65 green, barrackslike buildings were not celebrating a birthday or a holiday Wednesday.

The occasion was a visit from Teatro Nuestro, an Oregon-based theater troupe that uses satire, music and drama to educate farm workers about their legal rights and about the dangers of pesticides.


For many of the poor migrant workers, the play--held on a makeshift stage outdoors in the middle of a basketball court--was the first time they had experienced live theater.

Performed almost entirely in Spanish, the production mesmerized the men, many of whom said later that they identified closely with the characters.

The play told of a poor Mexican family struggling to make a decent life in America. It includes a maniacal, Anglo boss who speaks in a goofy American accent and ignores the health effects pesticides have on his workers. It talks about the effects of machismo on a Latino woman and the power of a unified political effort.

“The family scenes are the most serious because a lot of these men are far away from home,” said Armando Morales, who plays the Mexican folk hero Super Barrio.

For members of Teatro Nuestro and its accompanying band, Sandunga, playing in such rustic settings is not unusual. The group, founded in 1986, tries to bring its message to disenfranchised audiences, which the actors say are found mostly in rural communities and labor camps.

Ernesto Ravetto, who plays Don Tomas, the macho-yet-caring father, said the group recently played in the mountains near San Diego, where about 300 field workers lived in shacks made of sticks and cardboard.

The costumes are not lavish and the simple sets were built with 2-by-4s and cloth. The group is sponsored by several foundations and such organizations as the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the California Rural Assistance League.

“It’s theater for the people,” Ravetto said.

He said the group had previously performed at an elementary school in Oxnard. The actors decided to take the show to Campo Tres S’s Labor Camp this year after recent allegations that hundreds of Mexican workers had been held in servitude at a flower ranch in Somis.

“We tell them they have rights, whether they have work papers or not,” Morales said.

As the band began to play, the field laborers--most still dressed in work clothes caked with mud from the fields--stood against a nearby building, cautious about the free show being offered to them.

However, by the time the first act began, more than 150 men had gathered close to the stage, some sitting on the ground, others in folding chairs and a few watching from the open windows and doors of their rooms.

According to the author, Cheyney Ryan, the play was drawn from the traditions and experiences of poor Latino field workers living in America.

“Most of these people have never seen theater in their lives, so they believe that Don Tomas is real,” Ravetto said.

When Don Tomas tells his daughter, Maria (played by Estela Loera) that she is not going to college but instead will marry the man of his choosing, many of the men nod in support.

And when Don Tomas’ wife, Consuelo (played by May O’Conner Morales), asks rhetorically whether everyone is as crazy as her husband, a man in the audience answers: “Un poco.”

Later, a gray-haired man in the front row wipes at his eyes and shakes his head when Don Tomas begins to read a heart-wrenching letter from his wife after he is deported to Mexico.

The solemn mood of the play is broken by the gringo patron (played by Cully Fredricksen), a cigar-smoking, lanky boss whose wife serves him Kentucky Fried Chicken for his birthday.

Ravetto said the play gives the men a rare opportunity to jeer at a character who symbolizes the kind of bosses many have had.

In the final act, the Sanchez family unites to defeat the dreaded Pesticido--a skull-faced harbinger of death--with the encouragement of Super Barrio, who tells Don Tomas: “The greatest force you have is the people united.”

Pablo Ruis Rojas, a gardener who said he loved to hate Pesticido, said the play taught him about the power of a united people.

Segundo Alvarez, a field worker who has lived in the camp for three years, said the play hit close to home for him because he suffered eye irritations from pesticides several years ago when he worked in the fields in the San Joaquin Valley.

For Pablo Rivera, another field worker, the section in the play when Don Tomas was taken from his family by La Migra reminded him how much he misses the family he left behind in Mexico.

“It hurts a lot,” he said.